A 2015 study from Gallup states that nearly 70% of the US workforce is disengaged at work. It’s a powerful, frightening indication that checking in with employees and their morale level remains a constant need. When team engagement is low, we must take a deeper look at the system and how we operate, tweaking the plans as we go, actively seeking opportunities for team members to play a unique role in projects and realize their strengths. In the end — these opportunities will create a sense of belonging, and humans just want to belong.
It became a larger issue as we grew. Our R&D team consisted of 15 people when I started my role as head of the department back in October 2015. We’ve already tripled that number, with many new positions to fill. With this growth, my tasks also changed — adding to the day to day, I needed to find new ways to actively affect employees’ motivation, control, identify gaps in communication, and be much more hands-on with identifying abrasive personalities — a serious motivation killer. I was afraid that with this growth, the numbers of tasks piling up, with so many different teams, it would be easy for people to become disengaged, to feel that their good work is unrecognized. I wanted to avoid apathy and a lack of inspiration from hindering their success.
It happened quickly. As the number of products and developments increased, the amount of information requiring updates and synchronization between team members also grew. Before we experienced this substantial growth, the waterfall work mode sufficed just fine, but that too needed adaptation after we expanded our team, so we switched to the more responsive and dynamic agile strategy.
To create a system that could keep up with the constant pivots, I set rules, had my employees follow these rules, and all the while continued to update the system. The problem was that my system didn’t work. There could have been multiple culprits: my system was too complex and faulty, lack of excitement within the team led to laziness, or a simpler explanation, teams just forgot to update their progress.
The answer was surprisingly simple — gamification. This method turns the often routine (and sometimes boring) elements of a task and reconstructs it into one that’s fun and entertaining by using various ‘game-like’ elements. In the marketing world, companies often use this technique to get customers to perform certain actions, but gamification accomplishes more than that; it increases the likelihood of their customers enjoying the process by appealing to basic human motivation. Here, the game itself often becomes more important than the prize.
So, I started building personal and team dashboards for different teams within my department, so everyone could access and better understand the department’s ongoing tasks. I also created a feature where employees updated the team with individual items on their docket, which tasks the entire group still needed to check off, and red alerts for various KPIs I wanted the team to meet.
My next step was to take all the data and formulate it into an equation. I normalized the formula taking into consideration different team sizes, so I could credit the team who is doing more tasks despite their small numbers.
#T — # of total tasks
AVG — average number of tasks per team
Can be positive/negative
* Different team sizes have different numbers of tasks
The key here was flexibility, the grades weren’t final. At any moment, I wanted to be able to play with the formula and emphasize specific projects or prioritize different KPIs. If I saw, for example, that we improved in one area but regressed in another, I had the capability to change the formula.
Buzz, fun, and results
At first, I considered giving grades to each employee, but after thinking about the individuals and about human nature, I realized that some team members would treat the new system with more intensity than their peers, while others would find it annoying or overwhelming and just give up.
I decided to move it up to the team level — so the game could create positive pressure, an eager-to-help environment to motivate the team to get a good score. Just as in individual sports vs. group sports, you can have an impact on a game even if you’re not the MVP, and conversely, individual statistics won’t always lead to team success. To further entice my team, I added small group prizes into the mix. I shared a presentation with my team members, presenting this new game-like-method, we chose the teams, we gave them names, and off we went.
This next slide shows another way to build a formula, where 100 is the top score, RedAlerts are items that are not updated; Quality is the number of bugs (by severity and priority) and Progress/Planning is the actual work achieved within a specific timeframe.
I wanted to share some thoughts and conclusions from the process, the things you must consider for this to work:
- Identify company values
- Set clear benchmarks and criteria
- Operate A-team task management app
The main thing was setting clear criteria for the game, rules that were accepted by the team members. How long should every task take? What’s the next step when a task is delayed? Who takes care of each alert? Each bug? Open crimes? We set the accountability, determined the rules to represent company values, and kept it all as transparent as possible. I worked long and hard on creating an elaborate dashboard in which every team member could work, follow his own progress, his team’s progress and the ‘rival’ teams’ status.
Another thing I witnessed was how this process completely eliminated the problem of micromanaging. Because the information was up for grabs, those who constantly ask for information they could easily get themselves had no excuse. It helped them improve, concentrate on other things, sharpen their management skills, and made their teams much more productive, and consequently, more satisfied in their work.
Keep it coming
Since starting this new approach, I’ve seen massive improvements in the main KPIs. I’ve witnessed team members having fun, creating buzz surrounding the formula, and becoming more invested in the contest. It also trickled into other departments in the company that were experiencing the same setbacks along the growth path.
Creating this type of game in such a stressful work environment allowed me to give my employees a real sense of accomplishment. It helped bring the team closer together — not an easy thing considering we are over 45 people in the department now — keep a positive attitude towards work and each other, generate a feeling of team comradery, and equally as important — helped us all develop better products for our customers. You don’t have to be a marketer to be smart about your gamification approach — before you can draw happy customers in, you must have satisfied employees.